What is Word Recognition?

› Word Recognition

What is word recognition and how is it related to teaching phonics?  This is an area that gets teachers as riled up as timed tests or teaching cursive writing!

This is the desired outcome of teaching children phonics.

In actuality, it has been shown that we recognize words and contruct meaning about them based on a series of cues, including:

  • word shapes (Bouma Shapes)
  • contextual
  • perceptual
  • phonological information

For good readers, these series of cues happen instantaneously, and both the phonological and the semantic (associative relations between words) pathways have to work together.

what is word recognition image

The importance of phonics as part of a balanced literacy program cannot be understated.  However, phonics is merely a means to an end: accurate word recognition of the printed text. 

So is teaching phonics instruction, in its purest form, really instructing students in word recognition?

Teaching Children Phonics

I received in February 2011, an email from a reader who took great issue with this phrase on How to Teach Phonics: "Basically, phonics is word recognition."
The reader's email was this:

"I did not get past the first page before I screamed in frustration! Phonics is NOT word recognition, it is phoneme recognition, and the difference is not trivial! ARGHHH! With the best of intentions, you are spreading enough manure to really harm kids."

Now, I am certainly not a manure spreader. I am not harming kids. In fact, my mid-year AIMSWeb scores show a full year's growth in my lowest readers, with a class average of 2.8 words gained per week. Their fluency is rising, the comprehension is deeper and more critical, and I have never had a student - ever - fail a state achievement test in reading or math.

So, let's consider what is word recognition, how to teach phonics, and what is phonemic awareness. I will also address the misconception of the submitter that phonics is phoneme recognition. I also stand by my original post: Phonics is Word Recognition (but hold on to see why!), and that is what comprehension depends on.

So what is phonemic awareness and phoneme recognition?

"Phon" is a morpheme that refers to the sounds in words. Phonemic awareness is one part of phonological awareness. This means children are aware of the sounds in different parts of a word. We teach them to hear minimal sound units that affect the meanings of words.

Phonemic discrimination is being able to tell when two spoken words are different by only one phoneme, such as /mad/ and /sad/.

In contrast to the statement made in the email, phonics is not phoneme recognition. Phonics is about teaching students to make associations between speech sounds and the printed word. Phoneme recognition is only about sounds in words. However, research shows that students experience great difficulty with phonics instruction without phonemic awareness.

Let's define what word recognition really is!

What is word recognition? At its core, it is automaticity.

Teaching word recognition (yes, that is teaching phonics!) means you are providing instruction that is centered on brain research and learning. How? Both decoding (phonics) and comprehension are short-term memory processes. If a student has to continually slow down and decode a word by phonemes, that uses the short-term memory capacity in the brain.

When phonics instruction is geared towards the end goal of automaticity (when the majority of words become sight words), the short-term memory capacity in the brain is now free to comprehend the words as they relate to the text.

Understanding what is word recognition means different things to many educators. Some teachers feel that pure word recognition is knowledge of Dolch Word recognition or sight words. That is not accurate (and please do not confuse Fry Words with sight words). Word recognition means much more than being able to quickly read an instant word list.

We want our students to transfer ALL unknown words into sight words - or automatic word recognition.

The science of word recognition skills is based in word identification and word discrimination. Word identification (sometimes synonymous with word recognition skills) is about the processes students use to pronounce unknown words and be able to identify its meaning within the context of the sentence. It also includes phonic analysis, use of word parts (structure of words) and the awareness of how to use context clues.

Intelligent word recognition is also based on word discrimination. This is using complex processes to note differences between two printed words, analyze them rapidly, and not lose the meaning of the text.

Even back in the 1970s, Frank Smith and Kenneth Goodman researched and proved that recognizing words (word recognition) in written context involves a complete coordination of syntactic-information, semantic-information and grapheme-phonemic cues.

Phonics anyone?

So how does all of this impact our struggling readers?

Students who are behind in reading skills definitely benefit from intense, systematic phonics instruction. Why? Because their word recognition skills are poor.

And this is not just word calling - it is using all of the components of phonological, conceptual and contextual information to accurately, quickly and meaningfully decode a word.

I will go out on a limb here and state that if teaching phonics does not equal word recognition in your classroom, you are setting students up for reading failure.

True phonics instruction is word recognition: Being able to use all contexts of a word and all neural pathways to construct meaning.  

And for my reader who does not know what word recognition really is and emailed me such a lovely note: You are correct - it's not trivial.

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